I helped to rescue a horse in 1997, and rescued Cleopatra from a feedlot in 1999 only days away from being sent to slaughter. In 2004 I started Hanaeleh, a non-profit horse rescue. I say this only to point out that I have been in the rescue business for a long time, so I do know of what I speak.
Rescued horses are just horses. They are no different from any other horse. Horses who are not “rescued” can still bite or kick or just be a jerk, they can still have a history of abuse, and they can still need a loving home.
I confess I get a bit annoyed when people come out to the rescue and say something like, “Oh, well, these are rescued horses,” as if there is something wrong with them, or they are somehow different, and that is how they ended up at the rescue. Most horses end up at the rescue not because they did something, but because of their humans. Maybe their humans can’t afford them, or aren’t physically able to work with them, or don’t have time, or whatever- but that has nothing to do with the horses or their behavior.
Abused Horses Are Everywhere
I wish that you could only find horses with a history of abuse at rescues. Sadly, that is not even close to the case- horses are abused in every discipline, across every breed, everywhere in the world. Unfortunately there a lot of terrible trainers out there, many of whom use fear, force and aggressive training methods to try to get the result they want. Rarely does that work- it usually just creates a horse who is afraid of humans. Not all horses are able to find their way from that abusive training into a rescue, however, and you are just as likely to purchase a horse from a trainer with a history of abuse as you would from a rescue.
How we keep our horses is also abusive- putting a herd animal in a small box stall and only taking them out to run them around in a small circle or have them jump over a few poles for an hour or two a day and then expecting them to be completely normal and emotionally well-balanced is ridiculous. There is a reason why show horses often have a history of stereotypic behaviors (cribbing, weaving, etc.).
Another issue that I often come across in public stables are horses who are stuck in a stall and their owner never comes out. They pay their board on time and a farrier comes out every six to eight weeks, but otherwise, the horse stands in the stall. Legally there is nothing anyone can do (although the stable manager could technically intervene or even evict the person for neglect, but I’ve found stables are more about the bottom line, not so much the welfare of the horses). These horses are just as neglected and abused.
Stop Living in the Past
Any horse, rescued or not, will have a past. They might have had an owner who didn’t provide them the leadership they needed, or was a terrible rider. Maybe the trainer was just awful and aggressive. Regardless, a lot of horses have had to deal with a lot of human errors in their lives. This is not unique to a horse who has been rescued by an organization.
We do get horses into the rescue who have discipline issues- they don’t have good boundaries, and will try to push people around, or they have been mistreated and will act out by biting or kicking. Unfortunately, you will see these same behaviors at any barn. The difference is how you react to these behaviors.
The problem with people saying, “Oh, well, my horse is a rescue,” is that somehow they are excusing their horse’s issues or poor behavior because of his past. This doesn’t help anyone. You can explain your horse’s behavior, but that is not an excuse for it. If your horse doesn’t stand at the tie rail, instead of excusing it by saying, “Oh, he’s had an issue in his past, he’s a rescue,” you need to work on that issue. Instead of excusing the behavior, your response should be, “We’re working on getting him more comfortable at the tie rail.” Do you see the difference? One is just explaining away the behavior, accepting that poor behavior. The other is acknowledging that the behavior is unacceptable, and that there is a goal for improvement.
Changing how you look at the behavior changes how you address that behavior. If you just accept the poor behavior, you are living in the past, allowing the negative to overwhelm your present. I don’t expect miracles when a horse comes to Hanaeleh, but I do expect that the horse has some basic manners. Just because a horse has a past doesn’t mean he is unable to work in the present and improve for the future.
Go Slowly, But Keep Moving Forward
Often when people get a horse who has a history of abuse, they don’t know how to work with the horse. Do they discipline him, and potentially cause a fear reaction? You don’t want your horse to associate you with the jerk who hurt him in the past.
The truth is that every horse is different- the two basic rules apply here:
- Keep yourself safe.
- Keep your horse safe.
You need to find the fine line of making sure to establish healthy boundaries and letting your horse know that you are trustworthy and a leader he can follow without aggressive. My advice is to start slowly, but START. Don’t just let him walk all over you because he has a history. Teaching him basic manners can be done in a calm way that should not instigate a fear reaction, and can help to establish your as the leader in the relationship.
Rescued Just Means We Won’t Give Up
We have had several horses come in who have had a checkered past- they often are just shuffled from one person to another, sometimes ending up at the hands of an abusive trainer. These horses will test everyone, which can be exhausting, or their behavior becomes more and more exasperating, and people just give up on them. Sometimes the horses just haven’t had any love or care, and are emotionally shut down. Once a horse comes to Hanaeleh, however, they have two options- they either are adopted out or they stay with us for the rest of their lives. That’s it. It does not matter whether the horse can be adopted out or not, we have to start working on any negative behaviors and try to reduce or eliminate them so the horse and humans are safe. Even if the horse can be adopted out, we have a first right-of-refusal, so if anything happens, the horse will come back to us. Taking on that lifelong responsibility changes how you look at the horses you work with- we don’t just sell or give away a horse if we don’t care for his behavior- we have to deal with it.
It would be incredibly easy to just give up on certain issues the horses have when they come in, just by excusing them as the horses being “rescued.” That being said, I don’t want to deal with those issues. I don’t want to excuse them- I want to help the horse improve his behavior and help make our experience together safer and more pleasant. But part of that means that I have to accept his past, while still knowing he can have a future.
So please, stop pigeonholing all rescued horses as having issues because they are rescued. Please stop assuming that it is just rescued horses who have negative behaviors. Finally, please stop excusing poor behavior because a horse is rescued.
At the end of the day, focus on how to improve your relationship with your horse, not excusing why you don’t have one.